Birth certificates in CAR: the exception rather than the rule

2 October 2017

Bangui, 2 October 2017 – Most Central Africans, especially the youngest, do not possess a birth certificate and thus don’t exist in the eyes of the state. What is the reason for this lack of registration? What are the obstacles to access to the Register of Births, Marriages, and Deaths? What are the consequences? ASF appointed Thierry Vircoulon, an expert on Central Africa, to carry out a study to enable a better understanding of the issue and propose solutions. In an interview, he outlined its main conclusions to us.

  • The rate of birth registration in the Central African Republic (CAR) is one of the lowest in Africa. Why is this so?

Thierry Vircoulon

Thierry Vircoulon: young people who possess a birth certificate are the exception rather than the rule in CAR. The main cause is the impoverishment of both the state and the population. Due to the progressive decline of the Central African state since the Nineties, the territory has undergone a process of administrative collapse. Administrations no longer received the funds necessary to manage the population in the provinces and provide them with basic services. The issuing of official documents was similarly affected. The problem is aggravated by the impoverishment of the population, who must pay the same price as before for official documents, despite being increasingly poor. Even people of status like heads of neighbourhoods don’t register their children because they can’t afford to. For families of limited means, the cost of acquiring a birth certificate is too high. Sometimes, mothers must choose between buying food and paying for a birth certificate. The lack of administration of the population has become a vicious cycle: the administration has to charge for these certificates and documents because it has no money but, because the people have no money, they have less and less access to the administration.

Other less significant factors also help to explain the low rate of registration: the complexity of the procedure, the accessibility of local-government services for the rural population, and a lack of capacity in some places.

  • In the study, you explain that children with no birth certificate are still able to attend school. What are the real consequences of the low rate of birth registration for people’s rights?

Fortunately, the administration adjusts its practices to the local realities and exercises flexibility in the application of laws and regulations. Thus, since the majority of children lack a birth certificate, the headmasters of schools do not prevent them from enrolling. The problems emerge later, at the point of enrolling for entrance exams (for moving from primary school to middle school or from middle school to secondary school, and the baccalaureate). A birth certificate is required for these procedures. Not having one can be an obstacle and leads to corrupt practices, fraud (fake documents), etc.

Paradoxically, young people rarely have a birth certificate, but they all want one. This demand reflects the general demand for identity documents in CAR. Following the crisis, many people lost their papers, including their birth certificates. Bangui, where neighbourhoods were destroyed and there were significant population displacements, is particularly affected by this phenomenon. Archives of the Registrar of Births, Marriages, and Deaths were destroyed in some places; rebuilding the Register of Births, Marriages, and Deaths is a long and costly process and the government hasn’t issued identity cards since 2013. All the families interviewed in the course of this study understand the administrative and social utility (proof of family tie or line of descent) of birth certificates. The main reasons cited by families for obtaining a birth certificate are enrolling in school and obtaining official recognition of a person. People also know that having no papers makes travelling within the country difficult, because of the countless roadblocks manned by the security forces along the roads.

  • Are the Central African authorities fully aware of the failures of the Register of Births, Marriages, and Deaths, and committed to resolving them?

The transitional government decided to make birth certificates free for children born during the conflict, but this decision was not respected by the local authorities, which usually receive those payments and do not receive enough funding from the government to function properly. Therefore, the policy was not implemented. This is a problem. However, because many young people don’t have a birth certificate, the public authorities exercise tolerance and accept substitute documents, for example educational documents. This problem is not a priority for the government, which is facing security issues and humanitarian crises. The re-registration of the population can only take place once local administrations function better and the issue of the cost of official documents has been resolved.

  • What concrete steps to improve birth registration have you identified?

The simplest and most radical measure would be to make birth certificates free. That was already done and failed completely for the reasons I explained. The financial aspect of the relations between the local authorities/courts and the government would have to be reviewed, and positive financial incentives would need to be created for the various actors. This organisational reform is impossible at present. Therefore, the main measure proposed is to extend the legal deadline for registering newborns from one month (current legal deadline) to six months. This would be an indirect way of reducing the cost of registration, giving families more time to complete the process and thus avoid having to pay for judicial rulings in lieu of birth certificates. The other measure consists of simplifying the procedure within hospitals and making sure that women who have given birth do not have to return several times to the hospital to obtain a birth certificate.

  • What role can international actors play?

Subsidising the distribution of birth certificates is neither a priority, nor a sustainable solution. International actors should include this question on the agenda for administrative reconstruction, and discuss options with the Central African authorities in order to find a sustainable solution. This will definitely require a change to the financial relations between the government and the courts and local authorities, as well as to the regulations.

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The study Etat civil en République centrafricaine: enjeux et pratiques (“The Register of Births, Marriages, and Deaths in the Central African Republic: Issues and Practices”) was carried out within the framework of the project “Amélioration de l’accès à la justice pour les personnes en situation de vulnérabilité” (“Improvement of access to justice for vulnerable people”), carried out by ASF in CAR since 2015, with the support of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Cover photo: In the Castors maternity hospital in Bangui, birth certificates are issued straight away, unlike in other maternity wards in the country, which require mothers to return twice before receiving the document © T. Vircoulon for ASF

Published in Children's rights | Central African Republic | News

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